Twitter la #Revolucion

On: October 11, 2010
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About Agathe Wiedemair
It all starts in Vienna. I was born there. 25 years ago. Lived in the beautiful (yet a bit conventional) capital of Austria for about 19 years and then decided to leave. I have always been haunted by the desire to leave my hometown, explore new terrains, and get out of my comfort zone. I moved to Urbana-Champaign, IL (google it...I had to as well) to get a Bachelor degree in New Media at the University of Illinois. Why Illinois? Many reasons: Besides their fantastic Media Studies program and a man, I had my mind set on witnessing a tornado. It never happened. I had a wonderful time nevertheless. After moving back to Vienna I barely made it through one year until I got itchy feet again. The choice was between Chicago and Amsterdam, and I decided to go for the one I was more curious about: Amsterdam! So here I am. No tornadoes, but very likely equally windy as Chicago. For those of you who need hard facts: Interests/Hobbies: Electronic music, traveling, running, psychological patterns, group dynamics, cross-cultural interaction, identity in new media culture Degrees: Bachelor in Media Studies (2008), Bachelor in Communications and Journalism (2007)


In doubting the power of Facebook and twitter as institutions that proliferate political and social activism, the The New Yorker columnist, Malcolm Gladwell says:

“Social networks are effective at increasing participation— by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.”

Gladwell’s article openly refutes the notion that micro-blogging and social networking platforms such as twitter and Facebook can serve as spaces where social and political activism is formed and organized. Reviewing and citing various authors that have studied the variables of activism, he concludes that twitter is a platform with too little structure, hierarchy, and central authority. Thus, so Gladwell, the setting of goals and the reaching of consensus, necessary for the formation of social activism, is very hard- if not impossible. Through tackling these issues, Gladwell points at questions commonly asked in micro-blogging related New Media research:  What are users’ intentions to tie nodes on twitter? What is the primary purpose of such connections? And how intense are these virtual bonds? His answer to the above is that followings established on twitter are platforms for “weak ties” (Mark Granovetter was one of the first to shape this term in his publication “The Strength of Weak Ties”) with limited personal involvement.

In line with this view, Devin Gaffney, suggests in his article “#iranElection” that activism on twitter is actually something that can be referred to as “Slacktivism”, a form of upheaval often less heroic than commonly thought. Slacktivism is a term describing activities that require relatively low involvement from the activists themselves, however still allowing individuals to feel like they have helped a given cause. (p. 4)  This form of low involvement is nurtured by weak ties. If intimate, strong ties are removed from the equation, financial and personal risks are avoided, so Gladwell. In their article “Why We Twitter?”, Java et al. come to a similar conclusion. The authors find that, “[u]sers who are invited by people with whom they share pre-exiting social relationships tend to stay longer and active in the network.” (p. 2)

By comparing virtual networks with past social movements such as the Red Brigades, the Civil-Rights Movement and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gladwell revisits theorists that observed a common pattern among those revolts: The degree of personal involvement is a crucial determinant tied to the individual’s decision to participate in social (online) activism. Author Sandor Vegh describes the term of online activism as “a politically motivated movement relying on the Internet.” (p. 71) He distinguishes between Internet enhanced (using the Internet as an additional communication forum) and Internet based strategies, including actions that are only possible online, e.g. hacking. Further, Vegh defines 3 stages of political activism; the awareness/advocacy stage, the organization/mobilization stage and the action/reaction stage. (p. 72ff) According to both Gaffney and Java et al. twitter’s role in social activism does not reach beyond stage one. Regarding his research surrounding the Iranian presidential election of 2009 Gaffney writes, “[l]ikely, the results of a further inquiry to the data will show that the main utility of the social media platform was not organization/mobilization or action/reaction, but in the category of awareness/advocacy […].” (p. 8)

A lot of research comes to this conclusion when looking at the potentials of twitter and other micro-blogging nets as platforms for the organization of political and social activism. Contrary to Gladwell however, new Media theorists seem to not get discouraged by the fact that real world consequences are difficult to detect. Many seem to appreciate the potential of twitter as an infinite realm of information about moods, opinion, news, daily chatter, and other data (demographics) produced every second. (Gaffney 2010 and Java et al. 2007) Analyzing twitter serves the advantage of looking at communication directly, so Gaffney. “[B]y the very nature of the tagging system, we can quickly identify exact communication transmissions that are of interest, and analyze them accordingly.” (p. 2) Further he notes, “In analyzing a representative amount of tweets in this form, we can generate a rough qualitative uunderstanding of both the demographics as well as the content of the messages, and approach a case study of online activism from a radically novel approach with perhaps surprising results (p. 6)” Hence, data collection on twitter has the potential to bring major insights. Limitations to this statistics heaven are the limited information about the user’s identity, such as name, biography, location, etc.

What does this mean for the future of micro-blogging research in terms of political activism and social mobilization? Should the focus be on developing qualitative and quantitative research methods, before developing actual research questions? Or should we first look for the ways in which users use micro-blogging platforms, before creating a scientific method to study them? And what do we even gain from studying micro-blogs? Does twitter say something about society, trends and moods, or is it just a fluke that will pass when another trend takes over. At the moment the research done appears to be a matter of trial an error. It seems that, “[u]nderstanding the intention for a search query is very different from user intention for content creation.” (Java et al., p. 2) Researchers are slowly tapping into the realms of micro-blogging while technologies constantly get ahead of them. The difficulty of studying micro-blogging realms is a battle between the process of actual quantitative research and the making sense of such. Both, developing useful tools of data collection as well as interpreting such data proof to be a challenge if further investigated.


  • Gladwell, Malcolm (2010). Small Change. The New Yorker. Accessed on 11/10/2010
  • Vegh, Sandor. (2003) Classifying Forms of Online Activism. Accessed on 10/10/2010

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